The Goldberg variations by J. S. Bach. Essay I. To the history of composition: searching the truth


This is the first of three essays on J. S. Bach’s Aria with different variations BWV 988 (1741). This musical composition is known all over the world as the Goldberg variations. Meanwhile, the title wasn’t invented by the composer. It was taken from a critical biography written by J. N. Forkel (1802), where he noticed that Bach had written the variation cycle for a young harpsichordist J. G. Goldberg, who lived with Count Keyserlingk. Actually there is no documentary evidence to support Forkel’s statement. In addition, there is not an official dedication in its published title-page, thus contradicting the custom of the day. For another, by the time the work was published Goldberg had been only 14 years old. Such a young teenager can hardly be imagined to cope with the high virtuoso requests of skill necessary for this composition. Meanwhile, the title and the legend narrated by Forkel became part and parcel of this work forever.

In the Goldberg variations Bach presents four musical national styles that were popular in the 1740s: Italian, French, German and Polish. He could only derive this variety from Dresden — the capital of Saxony, the cosmopolitan city of «vermischter Geschmack» (mixed manners), which he visited sometimes.